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Shabbat Parashat Yitro 5775

Ein Ayah: Joy and Pleasure

(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 1:76-77)

Gemara: Hillel said to Shamai: “Why is it that [you rule that] we are to harvest grapes in purity and not olives in purity?” Shamai answered: “If you give me a hard time, I will decree impurity even on the harvest of olives.”  


Ein Ayah: The foundation of the laws of purity is primarily in regard to the Temple, as the Rambam wrote in Moreh Nevuchim (III:47) that this elevates the value of the Temple, entrenching in the souls that it is the center of the lives of the nation and the individual.

The enjoyments of life can be broken into two: simcha (joy) and ta’anug (pleasure). The classic substance that brings joy is wine, as the pasuk says: “Wine brings joy to the heart of man” (Tehillim 104:15). The classic substance that brings pleasure is oil, as the Rabbis say that smearing oil is like drinking, based on the pasuk: “Like oil in his bones” (ibid. 109:18). Applying oil brings a softening and an indulging feeling of pleasure. This is why its use is especially prominent for kings, like the six months for the women brought before King Achashveirosh (see Esther 2:13; Shabbat 111a).

One cannot expect a whole nation to be pious to the extent that all their joy and pleasure will involve pure vessels. This is not just because of the tendency toward lowly materialism but because of the special level that the Temple must occupy. In order to sanctify Israel from amongst the nations, our holy Rabbis decided to entrench in our hearts the idea that acts of enjoyment should be only for mitzvot. In general, a Jew’s nature should be to not get carried away with playing and dancing just for empty fun like the nations do. In contrast, pleasure, such as eating and drinking, is something the nation will not be on a level to limit to the context of mitzvot.

Why should there be a difference between these two natural experiences, and why then should dealing with wine have to be in purity [according to Shamai]? It is possible to expect the wine of joy to be only for a high purpose but not that oil of pleasure will be such for the masses. One might think that the Torah should not make its yoke too heavy and not impose laws of purity on the harvest of grapes. By extension, Hillel suggested that man has too much tendency toward desiring exuberant joy to limit it for those who do not find extreme joy in spirituality.

However, [Shamai responded] that if Hillel would give him a hard time, he would extend the decree to oil. There is a big difference between joy and pleasure. Pleasure is limited to the body that receives it. It is feasible to direct every individual to a high level of sanctity. However, joy expresses itself specifically in the presence of many people, in which case there is good reason to want to keep that setting a holy one. If one equates the experiences of joy and pleasure and suggests that neither require purity, then he will not see the difference between Israel and the other nations or between regular days and sacred days. In that case, he will not see the dangers of wine and other alcoholic beverages, or of silliness. If so, there is logic to raise the limitations on pleasure to that which will specifically bring sanctity and other good things.

      There is a big difference between the two matters. The public as a unit can reach the level of not engaging in frivolous activities like the nations in public outside the context of mitzvot. On joy we put limitations, on pleasure not (see Shabbat 62b). Joy is a power of the spirit. When it is applied nicely, with purity and sanctity, it can bring him to such a level that an individual will choose to use even his pleasures in the same way and to also harvest olives in purity. 

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